Ukraine in the Union, or the end-of-history thesis reinvigorated

Michal Matlak

When Ukraine’s president made a remote appearance at a session of the European Parliament on March 1, 2022, six days after the Russian full-scale invasion was launched, MEPs who had chosen English translation heard the translator’s voice break as Zelenskyy spoke about the missile strike on Freedom Square in Kharkiv. Zelenskyy’s message concerned the dream of Ukraine’s EU membership, which his country had applied the day before, upsetting some countries in the western part of the continent. It wasn’t necessarily related to an aversion to Ukrainian membership as such, more often it was related to the belief that Ukraine must get ready to form a government-in-exile (or one that would be located in the west of the country).

On February 9, 2023, the translator was already speaking with a confident voice, and Zelenskyy was in Brussels physically, strengthened by his heroism and that of the country he was leading. He spoke Ukrainian again, although he could have spoken English, as he did in Washington and London. He chose Ukrainian because, as he later explained, he wanted to emphasize the place of the Ukrainian language on the map of European diversity. After visits to Washington, London and Paris, he would come to Brussels as a modern-day Churchill, which he became practically overnight. It’s hardly surprising, then, that even employees of the European institutions had to vie for a spot in the plenary chamber during his speech. Crowds gathered in the corridors through which he passed, and MPs vied for a selfie with Zelenskyy, a bit like teenagers with their idols.

A year after the invasion, the focus is again on EU accession: Ukraine had gained candidate status, so it can now seek to accelerate the start of negotiations. Ukraine’s goal is to start them this year, so that the European perspective will galvanize Ukrainian soldiers and society as a whole to fight on. This is a realistic prospect, although there is no shortage of skeptically disposed countries, which include the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, Germany, and France. That’s why Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said it would be a process based on the candidate countries’ achievements and avoided promising a specific date. Besides, even if negotiations begin, there is no certainty that they will be completed quickly (as already happened with Turkey, for example, before its negotiations were interrupted due to the country’s de-democratization).

In this op-ed, I will look at the relevance of the war in Ukraine to Fukuyama’s often-mocked thesis of the end of history, but most importantly, I will address the implications of the accession process for Ukraine, as well as for the European Union. The argument I will want to develop is the following: if we want the success of this process, we must give Ukraine a chance to co-create it, and not just expect it to accept all the recommendations from Brussels.

The end-of-history thesis in force again

In recent weeks, another taboo has been dropped when it comes to arms supplies (the prospect of a Russian spring offensive certainly also had a mobilizing effect here): it looks like supplies from the UK and France will increase and will also involve fighter planes, as will financial support from the EU. President Biden’s visit to Kiev is another step toward abandoning the West’s main concern of the past year – the fear that Russia will recognize Western involvement as participation in a war, which could lead to a full-scale conflict between NATO and Russia.

For the European Union, Ukraine’s struggle is of existential importance, giving it a meaning that is easily lost in exhausting daily financial negotiations. After Brexit (which most Britons consider a mistake, although their return to the Union does not seem a real possibility for now), a large European nation is once again (if we count the Maydan events from 2014) shedding blood for, among other things, becoming part of the Union. The second Maydan began when Kremlin-controlled President Viktor Yanukovych chose not to sign an association agreement with the EU and ordered the shooting of pro-European demonstrators. Putin decided to invade precisely because of Ukraine’s European aspirations (which he rightly linked to the country’s desire to join NATO).

To date, there has not been a country willing to pay such a price for joining the Union, and this determination commands respect from even the most cynical officials.

The significance of the Ukrainian struggle is also important in the realm of ideas. Although “realists” note with wryness what they view as another confirmation that Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history has not come true, the opposite is actually the case: for Fukuyama was not concerned with the end of history in the sense of the end of great events, but with its end in the sense of an end in the history of ideas – the fact that liberal democracy based on capitalism has become a model to which the world of ideas lacks a serious alternative. Unlike some other liberals and leftists, Fukuyama did not see national sentiment as a threat to this model, and presented the Union as an example of a system in which this end in the history of ideas has been realized.

There is no better confirmation for Fukuyama’s thesis than the war in Ukraine, for it is liberal democracy, a European future and national pride that are the contents of the Ukrainian dream today.

This vision of the political order was and is characteristic within the West. It is no coincidence that countries of the global South usually maintain a neutral position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, as exemplified by Brazil, India or South Africa – the West seems to have failed to convince these countries that Ukraine’s war is a war against imperialism and colonialism, not a clash of colonialisms.

State-building through European integration

The Union is helping Ukraine remain and in some areas become a functioning state – again, in an unexpected and utterly dramatic and tragic context – confirming the thesis that the Union does not abolish states, but strengthens them, as argued by Alan Milward in his book The European Rescue of the Nation-state about the origins of European integration. For Ukraine, accession would indeed be an important step in building the strength of its own state, in terms of both power structures and the economy. No one seems to be hiding the fact that it is about finally ending the oligarchic system, under which businessmen enriched themselves on shady deals while the state controlled the political and economic life of the country. Their symbol became the tragically kitschy, gold-dripping palaces Yanukovych’s Ukrainians got into after he fled to Russia in 2014. Also, his pro-European successor Petro Poroshenko (at the same time a major opponent of the incumbent, who has made no secret of his distancing himself from his wartime management of the country) does not have a crystal reputation when it comes to ways how he got rich. Besides, Zelenskyy’s name was also included in the “Pandora Papers,” which revealed the assets of politicians hidden in tax havens.

The conditions set by the EU can be called a plan to de-oligarchize the Ukrainian state which focuses not only on the judiciary, improving anti-corruption measures, media legislation, but also on reforming the legal framework for national minorities.

The most problematic issue might be the reform of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. The European Commission, relying on the opinion of the Venice Commission, is pushing for a reform in which the majority of experts in the body that selects judges would come from abroad. This could be considered difficult to accept for a country struggling for sovereignty, even given the very low credibility of the current court. It’s therefore not surprising that Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has publicly criticized this approach in Brussels. However, this constitutes an exception: there is otherwise broad agreement between the EU and the Ukrainian authorities on the direction of reform.

More importantly, the Ukrainian state has managed to remain fully functional despite the brutal war of aggression – an impressive feat. Tax collection has increased even despite a 30% drop in GDP, which shows the morale of Ukrainians in the era of invasion. Ukraine has also demonstrated the resilience of its political institutions: despite the war, the Verkhovna Rada is working and passing new laws, which is crucial to the democratic legitimacy of the reform process. A symbol of this agility is Ukraine’s railroad, which is performing remarkably well for a country at war.

Another key issue will be economic integration into the European single market. According to economists, opening up its weaker market could be dangerous for the Ukrainian economy – the association agreement has already weakened it in some areas, forcing it to compete with stronger EU economies (see: the special issue on market integration and room for development in the peripheries edited by Laszlo Bruszt and Julia Langbein). This has also not been offset by cohesion funds – and this might remain to be the case for a country that will already be in the Union, unless the EU develops new compensation strategies for candidate countries.

A new concept for enlargement

What is often overlooked, however, is that Ukraine’s membership in the Union has and will have an existential impact on the EU as well.

First, as seems obvious today, in terms of defense. The recent decision announced by Josep Borrell, the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to double down the number of soldiers trained by the Union – the military assistance mission will train 30,000 of them this year – is just one example of the EU’s transformation into a military player, which is an absolute novelty. The EU has been involved in military aid since the first days of the Russian escalation of the war and has provided more than 50 percent of it (the other roughly half has been provided by the US), if the contributions of member states are also included in this tally.

Secondly, an aspect undergoing huge change concerns the question of enlargement, which will be governed by a new philosophy sometimes called phased integration. Even if it is not yet official, it is already happening: The Union is giving Ukraine greater access to the single market to boost Ukrainian exports, and it is abolishing roaming fees for Ukrainians. These steps show that this enlargement will not be a one-time event, but a gradual process that will strengthen Ukrainians’ resolve and encourage them to continue their reforms.

It will certainly affect the economic dynamics in the Union in manifold ways. Polish farmers, for instance, are likely to receive compensation related to the influx of cheaper food from Ukraine. The new enlargement strategy will also be important for Moldova (and Georgia, if its current government or the next returns to the European path) and the Western Balkan countries, which are experiencing “accession fatigue” due to the lack of a clear membership perspective and a credible timetable (there is also talk of rising tensions between the new candidate countries and the older candidates from the Balkans). This is fundamentally important geopolitically, because the lack of a politically credible proposal from the Union pushes the Balkan countries further into the arms of Russia and China.

Ukraine’s accession will change the Union

The Union will take advantage of Ukraine’s accession to carry out institutional reform. The accession of the 44-million-strong country will affect the dynamics of the institutions, which are already struggling with the problem of Eurosceptic member states, tensions between richer and poorer countries, and disagreement between France and Germany over the future of the EU. Hovering over these problems is the lack of democratic legitimacy of the entire project: although the EU was created by democratic states, its decision-making process is considered convoluted and not subject to the same degree of public scrutiny as decision-making processes in member states.

Also, the principle of unanimity in decision-making in key areas may become subject to discussion (even if one of the biggest supporters of its abolition, Germany, has not strengthened its position in recent months by hesitating to hand over tanks to Ukraine). Were that to happen, a new institutional mechanism would be needed to strengthen the position of smaller and poorer countries; otherwise, all decisions will be made by Germany and France, jeopardizing the delicate balance of power within the Union.

Another institutional change will be related to the framework for the rule of law: the Union’s inability to react when one of its members violates its own constitution and tries to incapacitate the judiciary will have to be overcome, if only because maintaining the common market requires legal predictability (even if we leave aside the more lofty justifications for the rule of law for a moment).

Kyiv cannot be only a rule taker, it must also be a rule maker

For enlargement to succeed, certain lessons must be learned from the post-1989 transition period and subsequent enlargements of the Union.

First and foremost, the transition is not a one-way street: Ukrainian society should not be solely forced to accept top-down rules, it should participate in their creation. Rules created collectively are more likely to be context-sensitive and democratically legitimate.

Imitation as a strategy for modernization – as Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev showed in The Light That Failed – proved to have serious limitations in some Central and Eastern European countries, which, tired of the neoliberalism promoted by international elites, opted for national rhetoric at times in combination with more generous social policies.

Ukraine, therefore, cannot be a rule-taker, it must also be a rule-maker. The spirit of such an idea is put forth in a report co-authored by leading economists, including Timofiy Mylovanov and Sergei Guriev, proposing the creation of an EU agency to handle Ukraine’s relief and reconstruction. Both the EU and Ukraine should participate in the decision-making process of such an agency. This could be a model for future enlargements as well.

Regardless of whether such an agency is created (and today it does not seem to be in the plans), Ukraine’s participation in shaping the enlargement process seems crucial, as the game is about more than harmonizing legal and economic standards. With its struggle, Ukraine is giving Europe a chance to build confidence in its own strengths as a political project, not just as an efficient regulator of the single market.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczó and Kasia Krzyżanowska

The text is based on an analysis published by Visegrad Insight. Its earlier version was published by Gazeta Wyborcza.

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